The women in El Salvador starting businesses to escape domestic abuse

Claudia Aguillon (left) at the cookery class
Image caption Claudia Aguillon (left) and her sister run their own catering business

Claudia Aguillon and a dozen other women in aprons are learning how to make an aubergine and brown sugar pastry at a cookery class in Santa Ana, the second-largest city in El Salvador.

When Claudia, 26, masters the recipe she will add it to the menu of Tastes of Coatepeque, the bakery and catering company she co-owns with her sister Iliana.

Being business owners in the small Central American country comes against a difficult backdrop - engulfed by gang violence it is the world's most dangerous nation outside of a warzone, with 6,657 murders in 2015 - but Claudia says that the enterprise enables her and Iliana to earn a stable income.

"Our business is our own," say Claudia. "No-one gives us a paycheque, but no-one exploits us either."

The cookery class Claudia recently attended was organised by Woman's City (Ciudad Mujer), a government initiative to help women who have been victims of domestic violence.

The scheme was set up in 2011 because if El Salvador's overall crime rates weren't enough for Salvadorean women to endure, the country also has one of the world's highest rates of domestic violence.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption El Salvador's police officers are in constant battle with drug gangs

In the first nine months of 2015, an average of five cases of domestic abuse against women were reported to the police every day, and that is said to be only the tip of the iceberg.

A key pillar of the Woman's City programme includes advice and loans to help women set up their own businesses, to enable them to earn their own money and establish their independence.

Iliana has two daughters to support, aged four and nine. While she does get some money from their father, who visits every few months, she says she would rather not need any funds from the man she says hit her.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Iliana Aguillon and her sister can see their takings soar during a busy month

"It has been one of my greatest limitations as a mother to have to depend on what he gives," she says.

Currently Iliana and her sister both earn about $250 (£200) from Tastes of Coatepeque during a quiet month, around the level of the country's minimum wage. However, in a good month, when they cater for more events, they can each earn as much as $600.

'Going to show him'

Nina Flores exudes confidence as she instructs her workers on proper tie-dye techniques.

Image caption Nina Flores says that remembering her bad marriage was motivation to succeed

The 37-year-old is the founder of Blue Moon, a company that designs clothes, bags and trinkets with locally produced indigo dye.

She credits Woman's City with enabling her to overcome both her self doubt and the societal barriers put in the way of women setting up their own companies in the country.

"There are more obstacles for female business owners in El Salvador because they are expected to be at home and take care of their kids," says Nina.

"Women also face more difficulties because many people think that they can't accomplish anything. They say, 'How is a woman going to do that?'"

That was the message Nina says she internalised after hearing it for many years from her ex-husband.

Now separated, she says that looking back on what she says was an abusive marriage makes her work harder.

"I said to myself, 'I'm going to show him that I really can do it.' And I achieved it."

El Salvador facts

A small country on the Pacific coast of Central America, with a population of 6.3 million

The most densely populated country in the whole of the Americas

It was ravaged by civil war from 1979 to 1992 between the military government and left-wing guerrilla groups

An estimated 75,000 people were killed before the 13-year conflict ended after a peace deal

Due to the persistent problem of violent street gangs it has the world's highest murder rate outside of a warzone

It was ruled by Spain for 300 years until independence was achieved in 1821

Read the BBC's profile of El Salvador

In just three years, Blue Moon has grown from a one-woman show to a 12-person business with products sold in boutiques all over the country.

After production costs, Nina makes $1,000 a month, a borderline middle-class income, which she says allows her a comfortable lifestyle.

She employs only women, giving them time off to be with their kids, and letting them work from home as long as they meet production goals.

'Became more confident'

Mabel Drejo, 66, had always earned her own money, first working as an architect and later as the administrator of an apartment complex after her husband died.

When she remarried, her second husband encouraged her to stay at home and she reluctantly agreed.

Image caption Mabel Drejo says she is leading a charge for El Salvadorean women

After her second marriage ended, Mabel had to quickly find a way to start making money again.

It was the social worker who handled her domestic violence case that gave Ms Drejo the idea to turn her sewing hobby into a business.

With help from Woman's City, Mabel set up Mab Fashion Design, and now earns $500 a month selling dresses for $12.

"I became more confident because I never thought that my designs were good enough to sell," says Mabel. "Now I like having my own business. Every time I put a new dress on the mannequin people tell me how pretty it is and I've sold a lot of my designs."

Lorena Saca, president of the Committee of Female Entrepreneurs for El Salvador's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says that while the country's female business owners are helping each other, the nation's mostly male politicians needed to offer more assistance.

"Women lack confidence in their leaders, who are mainly men," Ms Saca says. "Among women we've started to support each other, but we also need male leaders to support us."

Meanwhile, Mabel doesn't have any plans to retire. For the seamstress and business owner, Mab Fashion Designs is about more than just earning a living.

She says she is making a political statement for all Salvadorean women.

"Men have treated us badly because we depended on them economically," says Mabel. "Now they can see that we are more independent and that we can be successful."

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